Building on New Foundations > New Strategies, New Organizations

New York and New Jersey

Kathleen Foster

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Coney Island Avenue Project (former board member)

New York has the largest Pakistani community in the US, with about 120,000 people. It is a very close-knit community. There is a large Bangladeshi community nearby.

In the wake of 9/11 and special registration, the community here was decimated, losing as much as 40 percent of its population. Business was down 40, 50, maybe even 70 percent. It looks very different than it did before – there used to be a couple of dozen restaurants, they’re all closed now. Many shops have been shuttered. A lot of people have been deported.

The Coney Island Avenue Project was formed in November 2001. After 9/11, a lot of communities in Brooklyn were figuring out what to do. We formed a committee to plan a forum and one Pakistani member suggested we hold it on Coney Island Avenue, the center of the Pakistani community here. More than 150 people turned out.

By November 2001, sixty or seventy people were arrested from just these few blocks. We decided to form a community group to help people deal with their legal and financial problems, to support the families.

The board of the Coney Island Avenue Project includes Pakistanis, Chinese, a Salvadoran – I’m an immigrant from the UK myself, though I’ve been here a long time. We formed as a multi-racial, multi-faith community group.

This community has been growing since the 1990s. The mosque on Coney Island Ave. was founded in the late 1980s. Since the 1990s people have been bringing their families over. People opened restaurants as single men, and then grocery stores when the women arrived. When there are clothing stores that cater to the community, then you know the women are here.

This was the first time the Pakistani community was targeted. They haven’t been through the same things that other communities go through, like the Haitians.

Now we’re entering into a “permanent emergency.” The aftermath of special registration is still here. The Notices to Appear are still here. We’ve gotten used to detention and deportation.

The community is cautious and fearful. Families have been broken up. Children in school are hearing their fathers called terrorists. There was a lot of abuse in the detention centers – that was documented by the inspector general’s report. There is a huge civil rights issue here of the discrimination people have suffered.

The discrimination has become routine – people lose their job and can’t find another. There’s no real reason why they lost their job. There are other kinds of discrimination – even if their papers are okay, they can’t get a driver’s license. Driving a cab is a major occupation for many people in this community. I know of one case where a judge even ordered a driver’s license to be issued, and still it didn’t happen.

Accounts at Citibank were closed – the bank declined to say why. There’s a financial blacklist. In some cases people were detained and their accounts shut down, so they couldn’t cover their legal fees.

We’ve organized campaigns, demonstrations, letter-writing, e-mail. We’ve demonstrated outside congressional offices and at the DA’s office over these issues. We’ve had meetings with immigration officials. We haven’t had that much success, even though there have been many projects and campaigns.

Immigration procedures have changed so drastically – we’re seeing arrests for minor violations, for people whose papers are in process. The special registration program called people in while they were in the process of adjusting their status, to give them a Notice to Appear and ultimately a deportation order.

Because of special registration, people started leaving for Canada at the beginning of 2003. Then the Canadians closed the border. They were turning people back. All the shelters were full. People came back to the US side when they were turned back and then they were picked up and detained.

As the registration deadlines progressed, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Indians were flooding the shelters [at the border]. The shelters were full and were turning people away. As many as 800 people a day …

It has lasting effects on children. I’ve heard a girl of eight years old or less, talking about committing suicide if her father was deported. She equated deportation with death.

The positive side is that we have all come together and gotten to know each other’s communities. Our communities understand more about what we all have in common.

There are more grassroots organizations, more coalition building. But the process needs to go beyond the activists, to the communities themselves. At the community level, people are open to other communities.

Kids face discrimination every day in schools. We reach out to the parents, help them get involved in PTAs, so they are the ones that speak out. We’ve sponsored programs for youth, videos, community forums. We’ve had two or three forums in this community – it’s astonishing how much people want to speak.

There’s not really enough public outcry. It’s disproportionate to gravity of situation. People are picked up in their homes at night without a warrant and held for months – but where is the outrage? Procedures are being set in place – for arrests without warrants, holding people without charges. It won’t be confined to one group of people. As things get worse and there are more wars, more and more people will be affected.

On the first day of the war, there was a rally in Times Square. I saw a person around here in a small Pakistani restaurant who was drunk and provocative, trying to elicit reactions – but no one talked. The proprietor said in Urdu, I know I have to keep quiet – let’s just pray for them.